When it comes to language learning in the 16-19 age group, the UK lags badly behind its European neighbours. Only Ireland shares the dubious honour of allowing its students to complete their pre-higher education without continuing to study a foreign language.
Since the Sixties, we have seen languages emerge from an elitist position. Once taught only to able students in grammar schools, we now have a comprehensive provision embracing all students in the compulsory education phase. Beyond that, however, the opportunity to study languages as a supplementary skill varies considerably from place to place. In the majority of our sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges, an entitlement to foreign language tuition remains a myth rather than a reality.
This was borne out by the attendance at last month's joint Centre of Information on Language Teaching and ResearchFurther Education Development Agency national course on "Managing Languages in FE." The delegates represented just under 12 per cent of Further Education Funding Council-funded institutions. In their colleges, the percentage of full-time students studying a language in any form averages a mere 9.4 per cent. Since this figure includes those taking A-level languages, we must conclude that a very small percentage of students of other A-levels keep up their languages or start new ones.
Managements sometimes argue that, even where the provision exists, the take-up is so small as to make it non-viable. They blame an attack of British insularity, combined with less than positive experiences in language lessons in schools. A major factor in drop-put rates on vocational languages courses is whether or not language is a compulsory element. For most vocational students, entitlement to languages provision should be through a GNVQ. But it is clear that GNVQs are not user-friendly when it comes to foreign languages, because tutors predict that advanced GNVQ students will not achieve the required level 2 competence in a new language in the time available.
Yet languages in higher education are thriving, with students of all disciplines studying language as part of their course or simply as an extra. At the University of West of England, for example, 20 per cent of the 20,000 full-time students study languages: the 800 specialist linguists are outnumbered by the 1,200 studying languages as a supplementary skill. These numbers are growing steadily: the demand is student-led, not imposed by course structures.
So the lack of language learning opportunities in further education remains a gap to be bridged. What is so special about languages? The national need for languages in business is well established. British businessmen blame the education system for their lack of skill with languages and for leaving them ill-equipped for modern commercial life. Yet we are perpetuating this situation by not giving a sufficiently high profile to languages in the 16-19 sector, where a programme of encouragement to all students to maintain their existing language skill or to try a new language would be a good way to build on the substantial achievement of the national curriculum. Since we cannot predict what language a person will need in later life, it is important to create a good pool of expertise in a range of languages.
This is the strength of FE in that it can offer Japanese and modern Greek alongside the more common German and French. Unusual languages open many doors - Katherine Over, a student who achieved a GCSE in Japanese after less than a year of study at Hereford Sixth Form College, found herself accompanying John Major on a promotional visit to Japan.
Languages thrive where senior management has a positive attitude towards the development of a college European policy. Colleges need a statement in their students charter committing them to meeting students' language learning needs. Some already do this. Ann Brown, Vice-Principal of New College, Telford, says: "We wanted to provide languages for all under the post-16 entitlement. We wished to offer a wide range of languages at a variety of different levels to suit the individual needs of students. Our enrolment process identifies students with existing language skills and tutors encourage them to maintain their language or to start a new one. We have a language drop-in centre with self-study packs, and students can sign up for six-week self-study courses or 12-week taught courses. This year, a large proportion of our first-year students has taken advantage of this facility."
Elsewhere in the Midlands, Martin Smith, head of languages at Solihull Sixth Form College, reports that similar provision is under threat. Last year, 160 students followed an imaginative programme of taster courses in new languages; this year a cut in the number of study slots available has reduced the numbers to 100. It is ironic that the funding methods work against languages because they often come under the umbrella title of "enhancement".
Entitlement provision in FE colleges is less common than in sixth-form colleges but things are changing. At the Colchester Institute, a large FE college, head of humanities Andrew Phillips was instrumental in introducing a "Languages for All" policy whereby vocational course leaders have introduced a compulsory language element offering basic level in four languages to a number of vocational groups - catering, secretarial, office technology, and motor vehicle restorers.
At Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology, the college timetable has recently been modified to make access to language courses easier. Vice-Principal Michael Stokes says: "Having a matrix timetable giving equal access to both GNVQ and A-level students is of prime importance. Students have to be able to follow individual programmes. We offer a language as an addition to any course provided it can be accredited. We have embedded German into our national diploma courses in construction following suggestions from students who had work experience in Germany last year."
A strong lead from the centre is required now to allow modern languages teachers to make their full contribution to the economic and intellectual life of the country. A recommendation from Sir Ron Dearing for an entitlement to language study as part of the core skill provision post-16 would be a good first step. And an increase in the funding allocated to supplementary languages courses would be an even greater boost.
Roger Savage is a freelance education consultant working mainly in further education.